“Car nation” Germany has surprised neighbours with a radical proposal to reduce road traffic by making public transport free, as Berlin scrambles to meet EU air pollution targets and avoid big fines. The move comes just over two years after Volkswagen’s devastating “dieselgate” emissions cheating scandal unleashed a wave of anger at the auto industry, a keystone of German prosperity.
“We are considering public transport free of charge in order to reduce the number of private cars,” signed by German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt and chancellery chief Peter Altmaier. They wrote to EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella in the letter seen by AFP Tuesday.
Germany has been under pressure from the European Commission, which in January promised to get tough on air quality and threatened to penalise members that breached EU rules on pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.
“Life-threatening” pollution affects more than 130 cities in Europe, according to the Commission, causing some 400,000 deaths and costing €20 billion ($24.7 billion) in health spending per year in the bloc. Countries that fail to keep to EU limits could face legal action at the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest tribunal, which can levy fines on member states.
Even without the pressure from Brussels, air quality has surged to the top of Berlin’s priorities over the past year. Suspicions over manipulated emissions data have spread to other car manufacturers since Volkswagen’s 2015 admission to cheating regulatory tests on 11 million vehicles worldwide.
Environmentalists brought court cases aimed at banning diesels from parts of some city centres, and fears millions of drivers could be affected spurred Chancellor Angela Merkel into action. Titans like BMW, Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler or the world’s biggest carmaker Volkswagen agreed to pay some €250 million into a billion-euro fund to upgrade local transport.
The government “should make sure that the car manufacturers finance the emergency measure” of free transport, Greenpeace urged, adding that more parking and road tolls in cities could help reduce urban traffic.
On their own account, the auto firms have stepped up plans to electrify their ranges, with a barrage of battery-powered or hybrid models planned for the coming decade.
German authorities face legal action because of air quality problems in cities. In the letter, the authors proposed low emission zones, free public transport to reduce car use, extra incentives for electric cars and technical retrofitting for existing vehicles as long as this is effective and economically feasible.
They said they would test these measures out in five cities – Bonn, Essen, Herrenberg, Reutlingen and Mannheim – before rolling out the most successful measures to all other cities affected.
The authors said they had agreed these measures with Germany’s federal states and municipalities, but Helmut Dedy, the head of the Council of German Cities, said he was surprised by the proposal.
There had been plans for lowering ticket prices in some cities, he said, adding that the federal government would have to finance public transport if it wanted to make it free.
Most local public transport in Germany is owned by municipalities.
Did you like this article? Share with your friends!